Springtime Storylines: Have Toronto Blue Jays brought in enough help for Jose Bautista?

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: The Toronto Blue Jays.

The Big Question: Have the Jays brought in enough help for Jose Bautista?

Several times this spring I was asked “can Jose Bautista do it again?”  The “it” being doing something like hitting 40-50 homers and leading the majors in OPS again. My answer has been “well, maybe, but if he has to do that, the Jays are screwed.”

And the thing is, he doesn’t have to do that. He has to be a great slugger in the middle of the lineup, but the plan in Toronto right now depends less on him being an MVP-caliber player again and more on some guys with good track records and/or promise, simply living up to their reputations and/or expectations. I’m talking about the additions from last season in Adam Lind, Kelly Johnson and Colby Rasmus.

Rasmus is two years removed from an .859 OPS season that had him pegged as a future megastar. Lind hit 35 homers three years ago. That same year Johnson hit 26 homers and had an .865 OPS.  While that is probably on the outer edges of Lind and Johnson’s abilities, the point here is that all three of these guys have the potential to be solid — or in Rasmus’ case more than solid — complementary pieces to a Bautista-led lineup.  And that’s before you even get to Brett Lawrie, who we’ll discuss more below.

The point here is that there is a bit of a lightning-in-a-bottle element to the Jays this season, but it’s not comprised of a bunch of unreasonable risks and expectations. In the AL East things always have to break just right. The Jays are counting on that too, but the plan this year seems decidedly less pipe-dreamish than usual. I like the looks of this team.

So what else is going on?

  • Rasmus, Lind and Johnson aside, Brett Lawrie could be the real key here. After his August call-up, he hit .293/.373/.580 with nine homers and seven stolen bases in 43 games. Everyone is talking about Bryce Harper as the brash, powerful young stud about to take over the game. Lawrie is already ahead of him on all of that.
  • The rotation is worrisome. Rickey Romero is coming off his best season and looks like a solid top-of-the-rotation guy. Brandon Morrow is always interesting and, if he can put it together, could be ace-like as well. Beyond that it’s shaky, with Brett Cecil, Dustin McGowan — who, not surprisingly, is hurt — and Henderson Alvarez. I have this feeling that the Jays will be one of those teams who are rumored to be in the market for a starter all season long.
  • Speaking of McGowan, why on Earth did he get a contract extension after missing most of three years? I thought the Jays, coming off of two of the all-time epic salary dumps in the form of Vernon Wells and Alex Rios, would have learned not to do silly things like this. Yes, I know it’s low money, but c’mon.
  • The back of the bullpen looks different. In comes Sergio Santos, who struck out 92 batters in 63 and a third innings last season. He was actually with the Jays during his days as an infielder. Also in comes Darren Oliver who had a fantastic season last year. He never played for the Blue Jays, but he actually pitched in the majors the last time the Jays won the World Series. That’s not quite a Jamie Moyer fact, but it is something.

So how are they gonna do?

If things break right — and it’s a lot of things — they could challenge 90 wins and be in the wild card conversation all year. But I worry about that rotation. Unless it’s upgraded — or unless a couple of guys greatly exceed expectations — this looks to once again be the best fourth place team in baseball.

Astros owner Crane expects to hire new manager by Feb. 3

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HOUSTON (AP) — Houston Astros owner Jim Crane expects to hire a new manager by Feb. 3.

The Astros need a new manager and general manager after AJ Hinch and Jeff Luhnow were fired Monday, hours after both were suspended by Major League Baseball for a year for the team’s sign-stealing scandal.

Crane said Friday that he’s interviewed a number of candidates this week and has some more to talk to in the coming days.

Crane refused to answer directly when asked if former Astros player and Hall of Famer Craig Biggio was a possibility for the job. But he did say that he had spoken to Biggio, fellow Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell and former Astros star Lance Berkman in the days since the firings.

“We’ve talked to all of our Killer B’s,” Crane said referring to the nickname the three shared while playing for the Astros. “They’ve contacted me and they’ve all expressed that they would like to help. Berkman, Bagwell, Biggio have all called and said: ‘hey, if there’s anything I can do, I’m here for you.’”

“So we’ll continue to visit with those guys and see if there’s something there.”

Crane says his list is still rather extensive and that he hopes to have it narrowed down by the end of next week. He added that he expects most of Hinch’s staff to stay in place regardless of who is hired.

Crane has enlisted the help of three or four employees to help him with the interview process, including some in Houston’s baseball operations department.

“We compare notes,” he said. “I’ve learned a long time ago that you learn a lot if four or five people talk to a key candidate and you get a lot more information. So that’s what we’re doing.”

Crane’ top priority is finding a manager with spring training less than a month away, but he said he would start focusing on the search for a general manager after he hires a manager. He expects to hire a GM before the end of spring training.

“We should have another good season with the team pretty much intact … so I don’t know why a manager wouldn’t want to come in and manage these guys,” he said. “They’re set to win again.”

The penalties announced by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred on Monday came after he found illicit use of electronics to steal signs in Houston’s run to the 2017 World Series championship and again in the 2018 season. The Astros were also fined $5 million, which is the maximum allowed under the Major League Constitution, and must forfeit their next two first- and second-round amateur draft picks.

The investigation found that the Astros used the video feed from a center field camera to see and decode the opposing catcher’s signs. Players banged on a trash can to signal to batters what was coming, believing it would improve the batter’s odds of getting a hit.

With much still in flux, Crane was asked what qualities are most important to him in his next manager.

“Someone mature that can handle the group,” he said. “Someone that’s had a little bit of experience in some areas. We’ve just got to find a leader that can handle some pressure and there’s going to be a little bit of pressure from where this team has been in the last few months.”

Despite his comment about experience, Crane said having been a major league manager before is not mandatory to him.

“We made some mistakes,” he said. “We made a decision to let that get behind us. We think the future is bright. We’ll make the adjustments … people think we’re in crisis. I certainly don’t believe that.”